Ask Antonio Morrison whether Florida defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. is underrated and the Gators’ star senior linebacker will scoff immediately.
“Who underrated him? Where is he underrated at? By who?” Morrison asked.
“He ain’t underrated by us. We know that.”
Cox, a former standout at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, has emerged as a key contributor on a dominant defense this season, but fellow linemen Jon Bullard (team-leading 13 tackles for loss) and Alex McCalister (team-high 6.5 sacks) receive most of the headlines.
“Oh he’s [underrated] in the media?” Morrison interjects.
“Oh, y’all underrate him? We don’t. … You see the film. They trying to double this guy.”
Florida’s redshirt junior end has already posted career-highs in tackles (31) and tackles for loss (7.5) in just nine games this season. He added 18 pounds in the offseason and his hip — surgically repaired a year ago — is nearly 100 percent.
“It’s easier for me to play strong down there in the trenches,” Cox said of his breakout season. “Just got stronger. Got my hip back right.”
He didn’t lose his practice habits, either.
Cox is renowned for his motor, unselfishness and leadership.
In recent weeks, he’s embraced the side-gig of lead fullback, serving as tailback Kelvin Taylor’s personal chauffeur around the goal line. Cox has delivered backbreaking blocks for touchdowns against LSU, Georgia and Vanderbilt.
“We recognize those who don’t show up in the box score,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.
“In Bryan’s case, this guy loves to play the game. He plays the game the way you should, with an effort and an intensity on that given down, as hard as he can go. That’s a credit to him.
“We always talk about being proud of what you put on film. Your film is your résumé. It’s what’s out there forever. He truly can be proud of what he puts on film because of how hard he plays.”
Florida doesn’t have a traditional fullback on the roster, so Cox, who played some fullback in high school with the Raiders, said the coaching staff approached him after fellow defensive lineman Joey Ivie went down with an injury.
“It’s been cool,” Cox said. “I’ve always tried to be one of those guys who helps the team whatever way I can.”
Cox recorded nine tackles and a sack in Florida’s 9-7 win over Vanderbilt to win the SEC East. He also added the key block to spring Taylor on UF’s lone touchdown on the afternoon.
A career day?
“My father thinks so,” Cox said, smiling, referring to his dad, Bryan Cox, a former standout with the Miami Dolphins and current defensive line coach with the Atlanta Falcons.
“I’m going to go with what he says. … We usually talk after every game and he usually gets on me about my performance.
“He said it was a good game.”
Cox has had plenty of “good games” lately. And despite being overshadowed on star-studded defense, the Gators know just how important he is to the team’s success.
“He is the hardest working defensive lineman I have,” position coach Chris Rumph said. “I mean this kid is full throttle. Just watch the film, just watch this guy fly around. He just works so hard. … He’s really, really bought in, and he’s doing a really good job for us.”
UF SLIPS IN CFP RANKING
Florida slipped to No. 11 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, but the Gators remain positioned to sneak into the Final Four if they win their last three regular-season games and the SEC Championship.
“This stuff is pretty cool,” McElwain said. “I embrace the heck out of it.”
After Saturday’s scare against Vanderbilt, Florida was leapfrogged by Stanford, Utah and Oklahoma State in the rankings, released Tuesday evening.
The Gators (8-1, 7-1 SEC) understand the position they’re in, but they know they can’t afford to look ahead, either.
“Hopefully this past week was a wake-up call,” senior tight end Jake McGee said.
“We really need to bring it. We’ve got to be honed in on our assignments, our effort and really do what we can control and not give that opportunity for our opponent to steal one.”
UF plays at South Carolina (3-6, 1-6) on Saturday (noon, SEC Network).
Star defensive lineman Jon Bullard is “highly questionable” for Saturday, as the senior continues to battle an arm injury. Fellow defensive tackle Joey Ivie (leg) is out, but starting safety Keanu Neal has been upgraded to probable.
Offensively, starting left tackle David Sharpe (foot) “should be able to go,” McElwain said.